March 5, 2014 - 10:20 AM
Ever since the Bills made the ill-advised decision to play one home game a season in Toronto, I felt it was a deterrent to attracting top head coaching candidates to Buffalo. What self-respecting coach would take a head NFL job, knowing he would be playing only seven games in his home stadium? The answer, of course, was a coach who was desperate to get one of the 32 NFL jobs and had no other options.
Doug Marrone would never admit it. He had to toe the company line on the Toronto venture, even if it meant giving away the home advantage in one of his eight home games. Chan Gailey never complained, either. The only player who ever had the guts to rip the series was Eric Wood, though he backed off last year after signing a long-term extension.
But there was never a doubt in my mind that Marrone hated playing a game in Toronto. The Bills remained competitive through all sorts of adversity in his first season as head coach. They were still on the fringes of contention in the AFC when they played the Falcons in Toronto. When they lost to a staggering Atlanta team, the folly of playing a home game in Canada was more evident than ever.
Russ Brandon was beside himself after that game. It was clear that he felt the players had been put in a compromising position by playing a game away from the Ralph. Soon after the loss, Brandon went public with his determination to re-evaulate the Toronto series and do what was in the competitive interests of the team.
I suspect that Marrone gave Brandon an earful after that loss to the Falcons. The players said it was a highly emotional scene in the locker room afterward. Part of the emotion had to be the knowledge that the organization had put profit over the team's fortunes on the field. Brandon must have told himself he would never do that to his team again.
The Bills have left open the possibility of playing games in Toronto in the future. Brandon has found a politically comfortable way to move away from the series. But it's a good sign that Brandon is exercising the full power of his position -- as he promised to do when he assumed "total" control of the organization on New Year's Day of 2013.
It's interesting that this news would come so soon after Tim Graham's story about a power struggle in the Bills organization between the entrenched money men and the new football people. Brandon needed to make it clear that he stands with the young, progressive football men who are now responsible for the product on the field, and not the money counters.
This was a great way to do it, whether Brandon intended it that way or not. You can't claim to be on the side of your football guys while selling off their precious home-field advantage. Brandon has clearly sided with Marrone, who had to believe the Toronto series made the franchise look small-time.
I don't see how they could take a regular-season game back to Toronto now, especially if the Bills became a more legitimate contender and needed every edge to get back in the playoffs. Marrone's star will rise if the team continues to improve. Going back to Toronto at this point would be a slap to his face.
February 23, 2014 - 2:28 PM
SOCHI, Russia -- Considering the way Canada played defense over the last three games, it's hard to imagine one player making a big difference in game. That didn't stop the Swedes from crying foul after the IOC ruled center Nicklas Backstrom out of Sunday's gold-medal game after he tested positive for an allergy medication.
Sweden, which was already down its two top centers, Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin, because of injuries, lost to Canada, 3-0, in the Olympic final at Bolshoy Ice Dome. The Swedes were also playing without top winger, Johan Franzen.
"I talk for the players, and for the coaches, and for all staff, and we are all very upset today," said Tommy Boustedt, general manager of the Swedish team. "Our opinion is that the IOC has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history."
Backstrom was the top Swedish center in the Games, their best playmaker. But at around 1:30, Boustedt got a phone call from the Swedish Olympic Committee, saying Backstrom was being called to a hearing. Boustedt couldn't reach Backstrom, who was warming up at the rink. So he rode a bicycle to Bolshoy and the two rode to the Olympic Village, where the hearing was taking place.
The IOC said Backstrom had tested positive for prohibited levels of pseudoephedrine, which the Swedes say had been ingested in a daily allergy medication, Zyrtec-D. Shortly before 2 p.m., coach Par Marts heard the hearing was taking place.
"I didn't get a definite decision that he couldn't play until during the warm-up," Marts said, "so then we had to just take it from there. It feels like a great miscarriage of justice. IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) have doctors here who said that they thought Nicklas should play, but the International Olympic Committee said he shouldn't.
"This is something you should get notified on within 24 hours," Marts said. "so if you get to hear about it two hours before the game it feels like they (IOC) are playing some kind of game. It's just rude. You can't just do something like that."
During his press conference after the loss, Marts said the IOC decision was "like kindergarten." He said the Canadians were the best team in the tournament, but it was disappointing not to be able to put his best players on the ice for the final.
Boustedt called the decision a blow to hockey in Sweden. In his mind, the IOC tarnished "one of the high points in Swedish hockey history." He said he and Backstrom watched the game on television at the Olympic Village.
"We cried, both of us," Boustedt said. "I don’t cry easily, but we were both very sad. It was meant to be the most important game of Nicklas’s life. Then I come cycling like an idiot, telling him he can’t play.
"That was one of the worst games we've ever seen. Not because of the outcome, and the way the team played, but because Nicklas couldn't be in the game. This is one of the toughest days for me in Swedish
hockey, and all because of the IOC.
"They destroyed this hockey day for all Swedish fans, and for lots of fans all over the world."
Backstrom said later that it was very sad to find out two hours before the biggest game of his career that he wouldn't be allowed to play.
"I'm going to speak from my heart now," Backstrom said. "I was watching the game at the village. I've been here for two weeks now, and it's probably the most fun two weeks I have ever had. It was a great group of guys, and I was ready to play probably the biggest game of my
career. Two and a half hours before the game, I got pulled aside."
Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder played in Backstrom's stead. Tallinder, who is the eighth defenseman on the Swedes, played only 40 seconds.
""I got the call an hour and a half before the game to get in and get dressed," Tallinder said. "So it's just quick. It's a big loss. It's a big player, one of our best offensive guys. When you have a guy like that not going to play, it hurts us, of course."
February 21, 2014 - 11:41 AM
SOCHI, Russia -- Well, I finally got to curling. The time simply got away from me, with all the hockey games. But I promised my buddy, Chris Burke, I would check out the Ice Cube venue. Chris has been holding curling bonspiels in his North Buffalo back yard for years, using frozen windshield washer jugs as stones. We honor the beer drinking tradition, too.
I went to the gold-medal match Friday afternoon on my way to the hockey game, thinking I could kill two birds with one, uh, stone. I could fulfill my promise to see curling, and also ease some of my guilt about ignoring Canada in the Olympics. Canada didn't let me down. They whipped Great Britain, 9-3. I saw the finish, because it was such a blowout the Brits conceded after the eighth of 10 scheduled "ends."
I like curling. It's usually on in the press room and I watch while working on stories and researching ice dancing. The Canadian women also won gold. I saw their narrow win in the semifinals. I even began to understand the sport, which is basically shuffleboard on ice. These people are amazing. They're generally successful on, like, 96-98 percent of their shots. The Canadian men were near-perfect, from what I could tell. Unlike figure skater Kim Yuna, they actually got rewarded.
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun told me the Canadians and British aren't fond of each other in curling. Those countries do have a little history. But it was pretty subdued when I got there because the Brits were well behind. The highlight was four Elvis impersonators in black wigs, dressed in Canada's red and white, chanting into fake microphones, "Who rocks the house? Canada rocks the house!"
Now I want to go find the curling club in Buffalo and do a story on them. I hear the weather is getting warmer back home, so I doubt Chris Burke's sheet will be playable.
February 16, 2014 - 12:54 PM
SOCHI, Russia -- Ryan Miller finally got his first action of the Olympics on Sunday. Miller played a near-flawless game as the U.S. beat an overmatched Slovenia team, 5-1. He was very close to his first shutout in nearly two years before Marcel Rodman scored with 17.6 seconds left.
Miller laughed when I asked him in the mixed zone how much he had wanted the shutout. He has the longest active shutout drought of 85 starts, dating back to a 3-0 win over Montreal on March 12, 2012.
"I wanted it pretty bad," said Miller, who had 17 saves. "That's just unfortunate there. I looked a little too far left and he hammered it."
Miller didn't face many demanding shots, though he stopped every tough one before Rodman's goal. The Slovenians play a fairly conservative game. They had a few offensive flurries and some decent scoring chances. But they fired quite a few wide or over the net. Miller, of course, played his angles well and was generally in the right postion to challenge the shooters.
He admitted he had some butterflies in his first game. Coming off an emotional shootout win over the Russians, the Americans needed this game to win the A pool and earn an automatic bye into Wednesday semifinals. Miller wanted to be the primary reason the U.S. team didn't lose its focus.
"Yeah, I definitely had some nerves," Miller said. "It was an important game to ensure that we're at the top of our pool."
"I felt good. I haven't played in just over a week here, probably 11 or 12 days. So it was good to get back in a game. These guys play the kind of hockey where it's easy. You just set up for your one situation, your one passing option and the guys are coming back with sticks and tracking and they get the puck back.
"I like to be busy," Miller said. "I like to be in the game. There's not as many puck handles in this kind of rink. You want pucks heading your way a little bit. That's what I prefer. I got some pucks toward the net early on. I was telling myself, 'I came over here to contribute. This is my chance to contribute and help wrap up this pool and help the guys earn a break'. I did the best I could do."
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma wouldn't commit to a starting goaltender for Wednesday's quarterfinal. The U.S. won't learn its opponent until the end of prelimaries Sunday night. But it would be a stunner if Bylsma didn't go back to Jonathan Quick, who played well in the first two U.S. victories.
February 16, 2014 - 5:06 AM
By Jerry Sullivan
SOCHI, Russia -- Dan Bylsma announced early today that the Sabres' Ryan Miller will play goal this afternoon in the U.S. men's third and final preliminary game against Slovenia at Shayba Arena.
It's a smart move by Bylsma, who had a difficult job in choosing Jonathan Quick over Miller as his No. 1. This will give Miller some needed work, while showing deference to his spectacular performance in the 2010 Games. It also gives rest to Quick, who had to be exhausted after that epic shootout win over the Russians on Saturday. That will give Quick three days' rest before Wednesday's quarterfinals.
Tiny Slovenia, which is in its first Olympics and stunned Slovakia on Saturday, should be a fairly easy game for Miller. The Slovenes play a tight, conservative style and aren't likely to apply a lot of pressure in the offensive zone. But they proved against the Slovaks that they're a worthy opponent, so the Americans have to be wary of looking past them.
The U.S. probably needs to win this game to win Group A and earn an automatic berth to the quarterfinals. Russia plays Slovakia today at Bolshoy at the same time the U.S. meets Slovenia across the road at Shayba. In the unlikely event that the Americans lose today and Russia wins, the Russians win the pool.
If the U.S. loses the pool to Russia, it will have to play in the qualification round. They have five points (3 for a regulation win, 2 for an OT win.) Finland and Canada, who have yet to play in Pool B, each have 6 points. Sweden, the only 3-0 team at this point, has 9. Switzerland won two of three game in regulation and has 6 points.
Bottom line for the USA: Win today and they win the pool. A regulation win would give them 8 points in pool play. They would likely be the third seed, behind Sweden and the winner of Finland-Canada. That would mean a quarterfinal against the winner of the 6-11 qualification game.
My best guess for the U.S. opponent in the quarterfinals: Switzerland.
February 15, 2014 - 1:23 PM
By Jerry Sullivan
SOCHI, Russia -- Buffalo's Patrick Kane spoke at length after the U.S. men's hockey team's dramatic, 3-2 shootout win over the Russians. Kane had a busy day, albeit with mixed results. He played 20:09 and had five shots on goal, including a failed breakaway midway through the five-minute overtime.
Kane had a gorgeous cross-ice feed to set up a goal by Joe Pavelski, giving the Americans a 2-1 lead midway through the third. He also struggled at times trying to make plays in the offensive end, especially early. He had a hooking penalty with one second left in the second period.
Here are some of Kane's comments from the mixed zone after the win:
On his play:
"I thought I could have played a little bit better. Hopefully, I'll get better as the tournament goes on. It was nice to have some chances and set up that goal, for sure. But you always want to get better as the tournament goes on."
On the atmosphere in the Bolshoy Ice Dome:
"It was amazing. I don't think anyone could ask for a better game. It was tight at the start, but it opened up as game went on, especially in the third period, and you saw some more chances. It was just a fun game to be a part of, fun to play in, great atmosphere and a great finish, too."
On his missed breakaway:
"I thought I had enough speed to try to beat him five-hole between the legs. Looking back, I thought I could have made a different move on it. It would have been nice to finish it."
Elaborating on his statement Friday that people would be crazy not to want the NHL in the Games.
"Yeah, it's great for hockey. People are waking up to watch these games, especially back in the States and Canada. It's great for hockey and we're glad to be part of it."
On trouble getting more open looks on offense:
"We're trying to work on chemistry a little bit. As you come from one team to another, you're used to playing with different guys, different systems. So hopefully, those will open up as the tournament goes on. But as the game went on, I found myself having more chances."
On T.J. Oshie in shootouts:
"He's got a repertoire of moves. I don't think the goalie knows what he's going to do. He's coming in slow and it looks like he has the same setup every time, but he makes a different move and I don't think
goalies really know what to expect."
February 15, 2014 - 11:45 AM
By Jerry Sullivan
SOCHI, Russia -- It was a great game, and as U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said later, the U.S. Olympic hockey team's 3-2 shootout victory over the Russians on Saturday had everything. Naturally, it had controversy.
With 4:40 left in regulation, Fedor Tyutin beat American goalie Jonathan Quick with a blast to the top of the net. But after a review, the officials waved off the goal, ruling that the net was off its moorings. It was only off a bit, and the Russian crowd howled in protest, but the call stood.
The call is automatic at the international level. If the net is dislodged, the play must be disallowed. The NHL judges those situations differently. If it's decided that the net wasn't off enough to affect the play, the goal is good. Not so in the Olympics.
Still, it was an issue with the Russians, who felt that Quick had nudged the goal intentionally to put the net off the peg a tad. One journalist told Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov that Quick is known for such tactics in the NHL and asked him if he had been aware of it.
"I haven't heard that," Bilyaletdinov said through an interpreter at a post-game coaches' press conference in Bolshoy Ice Dome. "It is up to the officials to judge, to observe goaltenders' behavior. He (Quick) tricked the officials and we lost. What can I do?
"I do believe it was a mistake by the referee," he said. "But it's my job to prepare my team for the next game."
February 14, 2014 - 10:12 AM
By Jerry Sullivan
SOCHI, Russia -- U.S. hockey coach Dan Bylsma said after practice here Friday that he will stick with the Kings' Jonathan Quick in goal for Saturday's big Olympic meeting with the host Russians and continue to use the Sabres' Ryan Miller as the backup.
I was a little surprised by the decision. All along, I'd suspected that Bylsma would rotate his goalies in the first two games and use Miller in the big spot against Russia to see if he still had the magic of 2010, when he led the Americans to the gold-medal game and was named MVP of the tournament.
"Jonathan will be starting in net tomorrow," Bylsma said in the practice rink at Bolshoy Arena. "He played real well in Game One. I thought there was a period of inactivity in that game, and he had to stay sharp, stay focused, and it was followed by two really big saves he had to make. I thought he played really well in the game."
Bylsma acknowledged Miller's great play in Vancouver, and his experience at this level. But he said Miller is his backup for the time being.
"Jonathan Quick is a goalie who’s guided his team to a Stanley Cup and was a huge factor, and a guy who in the past 12 games, the last month, has a goals against just a shade over two and a .918 save percentage," Bylsma said. "Those are great numbers. He's a great goalie. He was for us in Game One, and he's going to need to be in Game Two."
Miller has faced more shots and saved a higher percentage of them this season than Quick, who missed the early part of the year with a groin injury. Miller is 14-22-3 with a 2.74 goals-against. But he has a .923 save percentage. Quick is 16-13-2 with a 2.18 GAA, but a save percentage of only .911.
Miller had a 9-4-3 record and .940 save percentage from Dec. 10 to the end of January. He gave up 10 goals on 61 shots in his two February games before the Olympic break, which might have hurt his cause.
Still, coaches are known for switching during the course of an Olympics. If Quick falters, we'll see Miller in the net. At some point, Bylsma will want to find out if Miller can rediscover his form of 2010. If he doesn't, and the Americans falter, there will be lots of second-guessing.
February 13, 2014 - 11:38 AM
By Jerry Sullivan
SOCHI, Russia -- U.S. men's hockey coach Dan Bylsma answered every question but one after his team's resounding, 7-1, victory over Slovakia in its Olympic opener here Thursday. Bylsma still isn't ready to say who will be his starting goaltender Saturday against the host Russians.
"I am not going to answer that question and name our starting goaltender at this time," Bylsma said.
Jonathan Quick started the opener and saved 22 of 23 shots. He was solid, but did not have to be sensational. Slovakia had its scoring chances, but missed the net on some of the better ones.
- U.S. rolls past Slovakia, 7-1
- WNYers and Sabres stats during opening games of Olympics
- Places to watch this weekend's U.S. games
- Review live blog: Updates from Sully in Sochi, and Vogl and Harrington in Buffalo
- Sully in Sochi: Sabres' Girgensons gets a sense of deja vu on Olympic ice
Bylsma would not say whether he had decided to split his goalies in the first two games at Wednesday's practice. The general assumption is that the Sabres' Ryan Miller, the MVP in the 2010 Games at Vancouver, will start against Russia.
The Americans were terrific in their opener, dominating a Slovakia team that had finished fourth in the 2010 Olympics. The U.S. speed and depth was apparent in the second period, as they scored six goals in a span of 13:51 to blow the game wide open. Paul Stastny had two goals and played a terrific two-way game on a line with Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie -- a line some would consider the Americans' fourth.
"Going into the game, certainly you could see the skill and talent on the top two lines," said Bylsma, the Penguins' head coach. "Zach Parise being on your third line is pretty good. But we talked about it going into the game that the line of Stastny, Pacioretty and Oshie could be our best line in this game, and it turned out to be that for us.
"Not only did they find themselves on the scoresheet," Bylsma said, "but every time they went over the boards they made something happen with their shifts and their offensive zone time. That's the kind of depth throughout your lineup that you need to have, and we do have."
The U.S. will face an opponent with extraordinary talent on Saturday when they play the host Russians, who have Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk on the roster, among others. Bylsma was asked how ready he would be for Malkin, who plays for him in Pittsburgh.
"Their team is very talented," Bylsma said, "maybe the most talented in the tournament with some of the star players they have. Evgeni Malkin, I've seen him do things where I don't know what he's going to do next or how he does it offensively with the puck.
"So to have a game plan or to tell someone what to expect, you might have to expect the unexpected against a player of that ilk. But again, there's more people on that line than just Malkin. Ovechkin, with that shot, the goal-scorer that he is. There's more than one or two players we have to be concerned with."
He also has to pick a goalie.
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